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'Jungle Book' Musical Born From Chicago-Bred Creative Dream Team

 Chicago-bred talents Mary Zimmerman, Dan Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld and more will bring "The Jungle Book" to life this spring at the Goodman Theatre.
'Jungle Book' Dream Team
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THE LOOP — In the latest Disney classic-turned-theatrical production currently brewing in Chicago, the big names onstage (Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo) pale in comparison to the power players at work behind the scenes.

"The Jungle Book," currently cooking at the Goodman Theatre, is being developed by a locals-heavy creative team led by theater legend Mary Zimmerman.

The final product, which premieres in June, will be deeply impacted by the city where it was born, Tony-nominated set designer Dan Ostling said.

"There's very little looking over your shoulder and breathing down your neck at the theaters in Chicago, which I think has allowed so many great artists to sort of take roots in this city and to really create really new work," he said. "Chicago is an amazing place to take risks and try new things ... if you fail, you're not condemned by it, you know?"

For Ostling, who has worked for productions in London, Australia and soon, Japan, the process has been a hometown reunion.

"I've been working with Mary since 1996, and I think I met Mara, the costume designer, that same year," Ostling said. Both studied theater at Northwestern University, as did Zimmerman, and all are members of the Lookingglass Theatre ensemble.

"We've done an awful lot of shows since then," he said. "It's definitely a really strong, sort of tight-knit team. Which is great — it's nice, in the theater world when you find people and you have a common language and common aesthetics."

Hopefully that shorthand has come in handy since rehearsals kicked off last week. For the design team, that means after months of preparation — reaching as far back as a research trip to India in early 2012 — production just kicked into high gear, thanks to director Zimmerman's signature on-the-go scriptwriting style.

"The Goodman is one of the few theaters that is used to, and capable of, producing a new work of Mary's in the way that she likes to work: She doesn't write her script until she begins rehearsal," three-time Jeff Award-winning costume designer Mara Blumenfeld said.

"It's a really exciting and a really organic process, but it's also a really challenging process on the production department of any theater," she said.

For Blumenfeld, that means the costumes she's been dreaming up and prototyping for months will be redesigned, sewn and resewn in a matter of weeks.

"Now is go time," Blumenfeld said. "All of it is sort of theoretical until you actually have actors, and until you have the shop ready. We've been talking about and ruminating on this for a year and a half, but all of the physical production happens in six weeks."

That's true of Ostling's set, too, which he describes as "layers of graphics" with an "almost psychedelic sense to the whole thing."

"The film is very graphic, really bright, with very saturated colors. ... We created a very graphic sort of 2D world," Ostling said. "Those sort of things loosely connect to the book, and to the film, and yet it's completely new and unexpected. I think that's going to be exciting for people, it's going to be sort of familiar to them, with touchstones, and yet it will be a completely different experience than the film and their experience of the film."

The staging, set design, costuming, music and script will be folding together at breakneck speed in preparation for the June 21 opening. Tickets are still available for the Chicago run, which lasts through Aug. 4.

The tour includes stops in other cities (including a fall engagement in Boston), but Ostling says its time in Chicago will most profoundly form the finished product.

"If you were to change any of the equation, sure, it would turn out differently. Who knows how," he said. "But I think there's just a lot of really positive things about creating theater in Chicago. I think it's a really good mix, and I think — knock on wood — it's gonna turn out, and Disney's gonna be happy with what happened, and the audiences are gonna love it."